Monday, March 03, 2014
Dawn of the Unread is a multi-media project headed up by some of the finest artistic talent in my hometown of Nottingham, and I'm incredibly honoured that the brrrraaaiiinnnssss of the outfit, James Walker, asked me to be part of it. Go to the Dawn of the Unread website for more details, and sign up to receive each month's downloadable graphic novel instalment.
And keep checking in on the Dawn of the Unread blog, where they're featuring a dozen of my film reviews. I'm travelling the world to explore the diversity and cultural differences of twelve zombie movies. The grand tour begins in Cuba with 'Juan of the Dead'.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Anyone who has read Jeremy Richey’s blog Moon in the Gutter will know that he is passionate about cinema, music, art and literature. Not to mention an astute writer on many subjects. The ideal qualities, in short, to helm a print magazine with a broad and eclectic purview.
Art Decades promises to be essential reading for everyone who cares about the arts in whatever form. Cineaste? They’ll be plenty there for you. Music lover? Ditto. Photography your bag? They’ll be some great stuff. Poetry? Jeremy’s been kind enough to ask me for some new work specially for the first issue.
All that’s needed is some capital for publishing software, an associated website, promotional costs and sundries for photoshoots etc. Jeremy’s asking for very little in the grand scheme of things and the Art Decades Indiegogo funding page (click here) offers some very tantalizing incentives. Please consider contributing something – you’ll be a part of a project that’s worthy of success.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
George Clooney’s canon of dependable, solidly crafted films as director gets another entry with ‘The Monuments Men’. It’s been greeted by an almost consensus critical opinion: plodding pace, under-developed characters, turgid voiceover.
I’d love to post a contrary review and herald the film as a misunderstood classic – indeed, this review proceeds from my opinion that it’s decidedly better than most people are giving it credit for – but it has to be admitted from the outset: ‘The Monuments Men’ is flawed. The main problem is the script, which veers between smartarse caper movie and big dramatic statement on the value of art over life.
Or to put it another way, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov can’t decide if they want to remake ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ or ‘The Train’.
That much-levelled criticism re: the characters holds. Less than halfway through, I’d given up trying to remember their names or whatever tiny daub of backstory they’d been given. They were simply The Snobbish One (Bob Balaban), The Gregarious One (John Goodman), The Wry But Melancholy One (Bill Murray), The One Speaks Bad French (Matt Damon), The Two One Who’s Actually French (Jean Dujardin), The One Who’s Awfully British What Ho! (Hugh Bonneville) and The One Who’s George (Clooney).
There’s also Cate Blanchett, whose French accent vacillates from borderline acceptable to ‘Allo! Allo!’
At the heart of the film is one hell of an inspiring true story, and when the script focuses on the logistics of tracking down and recovering stolen artworks, often from behind enemy lines and with little or no support, Clooney responds well as actor and director. There’s a particularly effective upswing in terms of urgency and tension in the second half when, following the German surrender, what should have been a more relaxed endeavour is suddenly complicated by the Russian Army’s rigorously mobilised Trophy Brigade, out to forcibly claim as much art as possible and ship it off to the motherland. The race to recover Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child is both a genuine edge-of-the-seat sequence and the script’s finest explication of the importance of art.
Elsewhere, cringe-worthy moments abound: not least a Christmas message received by one of the team which is intercut with a young soldier dying in a hospital tent (imagine if Spielberg had made ‘M*A*S*H’ instead of Altman: yes, that schmaltzy).
At its best, though, ‘The Monuments Men’ is a well-crafted mainstream production. There’s enough genuine commitment to the subject matter to mark it out as more than just a vanity project or a chance for Clooney to gift half a dozen roles to his buddies. The production design is excellent. Clooney suggests an epic, battle-scarred backdrop and sets up an effective counterpoint between the aftermath of wartime conflict and the timeless cultural importance of the works his heroes recovered.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
By any definition, life dealt John Keats a pretty bad hand: his father died when he was eight, his mother when he was fourteen; a legacy that could have made his life easier and given him more time to write was not brought to his attention (either by oversight or design); torn between his exorbitantly expensive medical studies and the pull of literature, he suffered crippling depression; despite being championed by Leigh Hunt, his first collection – published at the tender age of 21 – was berated by the critics and barely sold; his beloved brother died of tuberculosis, a disease which later claimed Keats himself; his mature work ‘Endymion’ reached no wider readership; he borrowed heavily from his friends to keep himself in a reasonable standard of living; his adjournment to Rome for recuperation in better weather following two lung haemorrhages was made possible only by the generosity of supporters; and it was there he died, aged just 25, considering himself a failure.
All told, the basic chronology for anyone considering ‘Keats: The Movie’ as a film project makes for a depressing narrative. In fact, the only high points are his romantic relationships with Isabella Jones and – more notably – Fanny Brawne.
Keats and Brawne’s love story spanned the last three years of the poet’s life. Eighteen when they met, Brawne was atypical of the “proper” young lady of the times: she was feisty, enquiring, opinionated and intensely passionate. Keats was a wholehearted exponent of the Romantic school. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, their grand passion could have pre-ordained. Their years together (and apart, depending on circumstances) resulted in some of his finest work: ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and the much-revised sonnet ‘Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art’, which gives its name to Jane Campion’s elegant, thoughtful and sensitive biopic.
Drawing on Andrew Motion’s acclaimed biography – Campion engaged him as script advisor – ‘Bright Star’ nonetheless proceeds from Fanny (Abbie Cornish)’s point of view. Her attraction to Keats (Ben Wishaw) is immediate but as in every love story with any enduring resonance, there are obstacles. Keats’s mentor and occasional co-author Charles Brown (Paul Schnieder) sees Fanny as something of a flibbertigibbet and a distraction from the real business of Keats’s writing.
Brown comes across as louche and arrogant to begin with, but the depths of his (entirely aesthetic) affection for the poet is revealed by degrees, culminating in a tirade of self-loathing after his friend’s death as he admits “I failed John Keats.” Another naysayer is Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) who quickly intuits the strength of her daughter’s feelings and tries to reason with her as diplomatically as possible. “Mr Keats knows he cannot like you,” she avers: “he has no living and no income.” It’s a quiet but devastating line.
Fanny, headstrong and in the most impressionable flush of youthful emotion, is undeterred. Keats responds almost indifferently at first, despondent over his brother’s debilitating illness, his financial situation and the general lack of interest in his book ‘Endymion’. But Fanny’s empathy and the comfort she offers him after his brother’s death draw them closer together. Keats spends Christmas with her family. The following year, however, Brown insists on a “summer rental” – i.e. their joint accommodation let out while they relocate to cheaper lodgings – and the separation is devastating to Fanny. There are moments of relief – transcendence, even – when she receives a letter from Keats (the film’s most celebrated image has Fanny sink to her knees in a field of bluebells as she reads his words, every element of the world around her suddenly and abundantly regenerated), but the toll of being apart is a destructive burden.
All this could too easily have become a study in anguished yearning, he a fey and consumptive presence, she a hypersensitive adolescent. Or for the script to have swung too far in the opposite direction and the whole enterprise emerge as a handsomely shot but stultifyingly polite costume piece, a kind of super-produced BBC drama. But Campion is too intelligent a writer and too disciplined a director. The production design doesn’t mire itself in the Regency prettification that is the bane of many costume dramas. The cinematography offers no sheen. Clothes look rumpled and lived-in, a sense of make-do-and-mend lurking beneath the ruffles and petticoats. Houses maintain a façade of social standing but rooms are sparsely furnished, paint is faded, possessions are few. This is a world away from your Bennetts and Darcys, a world where even families who maintain a staff seem to be keeping up appearances on rapidly thinning incomes.
Campion is well-served, too, by her cast. Wishaw – one of the few actors of his generation who genuinely exhibits the hallmarks of a great performer – is savvy enough not to try to “be” Keats but to suggest the life and the haunted sense of failure and the part-wearying part-exultant emotionalism that defined the man who created the great poems. Cornish, who gave an emotionally honest performance in ‘Somersault’ and should have been better served by Hollywood than has been the case, is nothing short of revelatory here. Fanny’s vacillations between precocious self-confidence and painful vulnerability are the stuff of showboating and breast-beating; a lesser talent would have made Fanny Brawne shrewish and hysterical. Cornish nimbly dodges all the potential pitfalls and establishes every emotional beat of Fanny’s three years with Keats, a performance that culminates in two particularly difficult scenes – the outpouring of grief at the news of his death; the solemn acceptance as she recites the titular sonnet.
‘Bright Star’ is a virtually flawless film* that is understated in all the right places while injecting a heady rush of words and emotion into its audience’s sensibilities at exactly the right moments. Conventional wisdom has it that ‘The Piano’ is Campion’s masterpiece. For me, ‘Bright Star’ is her most sublime achievement as a filmmaker.
*Schiedner is slightly – slightly – heavy-handed in a few of his scenes. The script assumes an existing knowledge of some aspects of Keats’s life. These aren’t even complaints.
Monday, February 17, 2014
A shorter review of this book originally appeared on the Five Leaves Bookshop website
During his career, Richard Burton published the occasional bit of journalism – including the controversial New York Times article in which, apropos of playing him in ‘The Gathering Storm’, Burton was openly critical of Winston Churchill – and two very slim nostalgic volumes, ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’, which hint at autobiography. It’s taken the publication of his diaries, however – nearly thirty years after his death – to reveal the true extent of Burton’s literary capabilities and the overall effect is to make one weep for the memoirs he never wrote, or the century-spanning picaresque novel he gave some considerable thought to but which, again, never materialised.
The diaries – edited by Chris Williams, whose love of footnotes is as all-consuming as Burton’s torrid passion for Elizabeth Taylor – are ordered into six main sections: 1939-1940, in which a series of regular but short entries give a snapshot of his childhood and a burgeoning love of literature; 1960, which is little more than an appointments diary; 1965-1972, which spans almost 500 of the 654 pages; 1975, documenting his brief remarriage to Taylor and an unhealthy amount of drinking; 1980, centring mostly on his theatrical tour with ‘Camelot’; and 1983, which ends as he’s about to take to the stage again in Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’, an ill-fated production that co-starred Taylor.
What of the gaps? Ah, thereby hangs the frustrating aspect of what is otherwise a compelling and immersive volume. Three things emerge as constant enemies of Burton’s diarism: boredom (although he sometimes writes to fill otherwise empty hours), drink (it’s no coincidence that his most prolific and detailed entries come on days when he’s trying to stay off the booze), and engagement with a role that genuinely interests him. The latter might seem obvious, but such roles were few and far between. Burton admits to actively disliking his profession – “I loathe, loathe, loathe acting” – and much of what he did during the Taylor years seems to have been motivated strictly by financial realities. The diaries during this period record almost casually his acquisition of extravagantly priced jewellery, a yacht, a private jet (“I did something beyond outrage” he says of dropping $960,000 for the latter – this in 1967!*) and the kind of house-hopping that would have the ‘Location Location Location’ production team weeping into their portfolios.
The downside is that barely a word is expended on ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, ‘Becket’, ‘Night of the Iguana’ or ‘Villain’ and there’s nothing whatsoever on ‘Wagner’ or ‘1984’. There are, however, entire screeds on ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’, ‘Raid on Rommel’, ‘Staircase’ and ‘The Battle of Sutjeska’. The only exception to this inverse good film/no entries ratio is the underrated ‘Assassination of Trotsky’. Also, it would have been fun to read Burton at his bitchiest give behind-the-scenes accounts of ‘Exorcist II’ and ‘The Medusa Touch’ – but, again, this was sadly not to be.
What we do get, in plenitude, is an account of Burton’s life – the travel, the glamour, the fabulous restaurants, the glitzy hotels, the premieres and hobnobbing. In the wrong hands, this could have been the stuff of gloating. But everything Burton writes is tempered with his background, the poverty of his childhood, the admission – made repeatedly – that he’s been lucky. Moreover, fame and materialism didn’t lull him into intellectual moribundity. Throughout the span of the diaries, Burton demonstrates an inquiring mind, a thirst for knowledge, a keen engagement with the written word and a fascination with linguism. Put it this away: imagine you’re on a yacht, you’re worth millions, there’s an entourage on hand to give it the “yes sir no sir three bags full sir” at the merest inclination of your eyebrow, and you’ve got Liz Taylor lying on a sun lounger next to you. Would you just kick back and let a big wave of egomania wash of you, or would you spend the day reading a three-volume academic history of ancient Rome then work on bringing your Italian to fluency?
Burton’s reading is voracious and eclectic. His love of poetry is writ large. For all that he socialises with royalty and fellow film stars, his most treasured acquaintanceships are with Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Lines of verse, often subtly paraphrased to mesh with the business of that day’s entry, are threaded through the journals. Editor Williams tediously annotates every one – well, almost; he misses a couple of bits by Henley – and insists on rendering the actual line. He also fussily records that ‘The Phil Donaghue Show’ was presented by Phil Donaghue, PT means physical training, and bangers and mash is a dish of sausage and mashed potato – things I’m guessing that most people know – yet doesn’t bother to translate entire sentences that Burton renders in French. There are footnotes to every page, up to six or seven per page most of the time, and they’re generally facile. After a while, I trained my eye to simply disregard them and got on with the infinitely measurable business of wallowing in Burton’s prose.
While ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’ are polished and bear the evidence of careful revision, the diaries are exuberant and unmediated, entire entries fast-flowing in a rush of words. You hear Burton speak as you read them – that commanding voice with its dramatic emphasis. Just as Burton the orator had an intuitive understanding of cadence and rhythm, Burton the writer unleashes torrents of words to just the same effect. He directs those words at those around him, often sympathetically and sometimes satirically (his description of Andy Warhol as looking “like a cadaver when still and a failure of plastic surgery when he moved” is priceless), but mostly at himself and with almost brutal honesty.
I haven’t enjoyed an actor in his own words this much since ‘Ever, Dirk’, John Coldstream’s volume of Dirk Bogarde’s waspish and fascinating correspondence. Bogarde, of course, enjoyed a second career as a memoirist, novelist and reviewer in the last two decades or so of his life. It’s a damn shame Burton didn’t get to tread a similar path.
*The equivalent of about $6.5million today.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
I haven’t read many of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set crime novels featuring recovering alcoholic Deputy Sheriff Dave Robicheaux – something I intend to rectify – but the unifying aesthetic seems to be threefold: (i) slow-burn narratives; (ii) convoluted and multi-stranded ploting, often spanning different timeframes; and (iii) a juxtaposition of deep-rooted morality with protocol-defying acts of (necessary?) violence. Burke’s prose is precisely crafted and carries weight. He writes thinking man’s genre fiction.
So it’s regrettable – if depressingly understandable given mainstream American cinema’s tendency to dumb-down – that Burke and Robicheaux have been poorly treated in terms of adaptation. First out of the trap, in 1996, was Phil Joanou’s ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’, a heart-in-the-right-place attempt to capture the atmosphere and complexity of Burke’s second novel. At two and a quarter hours, it took its time negotiating the source material, but the last act still seemed rushed and awkward. Nor did Alec Baldwin’s performance ever quite suggest the Robicheaux of the novels. A good supporting cast – Eric Roberts, Teri Hatcher, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mary Stuart Masterson – kind of got lost in the background.
Total silence on the silver screen Robicheaux front for thirteen years, then Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘In the Electric Mist’ starring Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald and Mary Steenburgen went, inexplicably, straight to DVD. Stop and ponder that concept a moment. Bertrand motherfucking Tavernier, one of Europe’s most respected filmmakers – a man whose CV includes the definitive jazz opus ‘Round Midnight’, Dirk Bogarde’s poignant swansong ‘These Foolish Things’, and the drumtight policier ‘L.627’ – directs Tommy Lee motherfucking Jones – two years after his encomium-laden performance in ‘No Country for Old Men’ in a James Lee motherfucking Burke adaptation and for some weird-ass reason the world didn’t sit up and take notice.
It’s fair to say, then, that something went wrong. Maybe more than one something. Let’s break it down. The biggest something was that old how-to-ineffably-ruin-a-movie standby, producer interference. This in itself is peculiar, since most of the credited producers and executive producers had previously worked either with Tavernier on his French-language films or with Jones on his fantastic directorial debut ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’. Whatever the reason, some twenty minutes got chopped out of the film, leaving various subplots unresolved, questions unanswered, characters unaccounted for and no clear correlation between the narrative’s fifty-years-apart timelines. Apparently Tavernier’s approved cut won an award in France, which tells you all you need to know.
Other possible contributory factors (mere opinionism on my part): Jones, while a better fit for Robicheaux than Baldwin, is too old for the character; Tavernier lacks the engagement with regional culture that an American director might have brought to the project; and the big quasi-surreal set-pieces are blandly conjured. Here’s a good place to consider the title. ‘In the Electric Mist’ is a neither-here-nor-there contraction of the novel’s moniker, ‘In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead’. In its full iteration, it’s a gnarly piece of dimestore poetry. Robicheaux’s pursuit of a multiple murdered who targets hookers plays out against the filming of a Civil War epic in his jurisdiction. A plot twist sees him drugged, after which he experiences hallucinations of Confederate leader General John Bell Hood (woodenly played by Levon Helm). Electric mist = the falsity of cinema. Confederate dead = Robicheaux’s ghostly confidante/advisor. To be fair, it would take someone like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam or Alejandro Jodorowsky to visualise this kind of thing and make it work and headfuck the audience so that they never forgot it.
All of which probably sounds like I’m writing ‘In the Electric Mist’ off. But that’s not what we’re about here at The Agitation of the Mind. And while ‘In the Electric Mist’ remains a flawed piece of work by any set of critical perameters, it still has several things going for it. First and foremost, Mr Tommy Lee Jones. Too old for Robicheaux: yes. Not badass enough for Robicheaux: hell, fuckin’ no. Tommy Lee Jones represents an old-school tradition of film stars who vibe tough-guy authenticity offset by an internalized suggestion of psychological unpredictability. Jones, in other words, is heir to the tradition of Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. And there are enough scenes in ‘In the Electric Mist’ where he channels their traditions and iconography while never losing sight of his (again internalized and suggestive) personification of Robicheaux.
Moreover, Jones is an incredibly generous and adaptive actor. Watch how he plays off a seasoned performer like Pruitt Taylor Vince, each of them interweaving into the other’s dialogue. Then look at his scenes with Justina Machado, easing back to allow her character the moment, then re-insinuating himself at the crucial point. Of his scenes with Goodman, I’ll say nothing more than settle back with a big and prepare to grin like a lunatic. These guys mix it up and kick it around and create cinematic alchemy.
While it might not add up, critically or narratively, to much more than a bunch of unanswered questions and redacted subplots, ‘In the Electric Mist’ galvanises most often than not when it takes up the mantle of a character-driven piece that’s interested in the dynamic between married man/adoptive father and hair-trigger-tempered authority figure one step away from vigilantism. Maybe one day it’ll be reappraised. Maybe a producer with a certain vision will greenlight another Robicheaux movie. I have no idea who would play him – could Michael Fassbender pull off a convincing Bayou accent? – but the fact remains that the definitive James Lee Burke adaptation is still out there, waiting for the right creative team.
Sunday, February 09, 2014
Small confession, folks. I’ve been playing away from home.
Now, before anyone calls Mrs F and gets me in world of trouble, let me clarify that statement. The very amenable team at Moviepilot invited me to share some of my work over on their site. So the review of Brit-drama ‘Made in Dagenham’ that I had primed for Agitation found itself a different home.
Depending on how much content I produce in the coming months, I might alternate between posting things on Moviepilot and Agitation. What I don’t want to do, however, is starve Agitation for content.
The ‘Made in Dagenham’ review is just a click away; meanwhile, keep checking back to this site. We’re going down to the bayou with Tommy Lee Jones in a couple of days to determine whether ‘In the Electric Mist’ gives the work of James Lee Burke a better showing than ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’.